The part of the Jewish world known as “chareidi,” “right wing,” or “Torah only” has grown tremendously over the past 50 years, and has brought many positive things along with it. Chareidim are dedicated and work hard for what they believe in. On a Sunday morning, mothers must be up bright and early to take their kids to school, as there is no day off from learning Torah. The rebbeim also need to prepare and teach like any other weekday. The children don’t have it easy, either, rising early and not returning until very late in the day or night, throughout the long workweek.
The level of Torah learning and halachic standards among all sectors has been raised due to their efforts, and the daf yomi program has ingrained in people the idea that it is crucial to set aside part of every day for a shiur of some kind.
The chareidi community also demonstrates a strong devotion to chesed. There is Tomchei Shabbos to assist with feeding families, Bikur Cholim to provide for the needs of hospital patients, Hatzalah to provide high-quality emergency care, Chaverim to assist with motor-vehicle breakdowns, and Achiezer for guidance in times of crisis or other specific needs. In addition, there are numerous specialized gemachs which lend things like wedding outfits, flowers, or medical equipment or which grant interest-free monetary loans.
As a result of the success of the right-wing or Torah-only sector of Orthodox Judaism, other, more modern streams may perhaps feel less authentic or legitimate and begin to think that their viewpoint, that of Torah Umada or Torah Im Derech Eretz, is only a watered-down or compromised version of Judaism. This can lead to two opposite effects.
The first of these is in trying to imitate certain patterns within the chareidi community by issuing extreme statements or rulings, in an attempt to gain legitimacy among more right-wing elements. This may come from a lack of confidence in one’s own principles or background. One finds this on occasion among faculty members of certain modern institutions, and such comments have in the past generated friction between faculty and administration. Often, these efforts do not succeed, and their products are still looked upon as being somehow inferior, with the result that their graduates would not be considered for a rabbinical position or a shidduch in the more right-wing world. A mere mention of the wrong yeshiva or seminary on a shidduch résumé can completely nix the prospect.
An additional manifestation of this first type of thinking is that certain kids will “flip out” and come back from Israel with a completely different mode of dress and viewpoint than when they went in, due to their belief that they have now found the truth and that what their parents were practicing all along was wrong. This is similarly due to a lack of confidence that there is any other legitimate direction within Judaism, other than the most right-leaning. This can similarly generate friction within families, when the student switches plans in midstream and the parents have no idea how to understand the new path he or she has chosen. (A child is not bound to follow his parents’ path, but parents may have legitimate concerns for the child’s welfare—for example, as to whether he will be able to make a living if he suddenly abandons his college plans.)
The second, opposite, tendency is that adherents of the more modern streams of thought may figure, “Since my brand of Judaism is only an abridged version, as I believe in the importance of working and secular studies and the State of Israel, I might as well be lenient with other things, as well.” Perhaps that is why, as has recently been publicized, some Modern Orthodox children have begun keeping only “half-Shabbos,” observing many elements of Shabbos but allowing themselves to text their friends, as they can’t resist the urge to constantly be in touch with each other, even for one day. One might also raise the issue that in certain Modern schools, there is some element of laxity in the extent of fraternization that occurs between the genders.
Now, the chareidi world will most likely say that all this is not their problem—that actually it is further evidence that the Modern approach is faulty. The solution is for the other streams of Judaism to abandon their views and switch to traditional, Torah-true Judaism.
But it is not so simple. There is a Gemara which tells us that when the mashchis (G‑d’s destroying angel) is unleashed, he doesn’t distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. They both get swept away. At first, this seems like a travesty. Why are the righteous punished along with the wicked, when it was the sins of the wicked that caused the destruction to occur?
But the answer seems clear: The righteous are obligated to live a lifestyle that motivates the wicked to imitate them and become righteous. It should be seen as a palatable and rewarding way of life that everybody should want to adopt because of its clear advantages. However, if there are wicked people in the world, it is a sure sign that the righteous are not doing their job and relating to others in a way that they can understand and appreciate. They must not be serving as proper role models. We are all in this together.
So if Modern Orthodox children are abandoning halachah observance to any extent, then chareidim may in part be responsible. This can be summed up as Jacobson’s Paradox, or Newton’s Fourth Law of Motion: Every chumrah brings an equal and opposite kulah. Kol ha’mosif gorei’a.
Therefore, even if the only problems were within the Modern camp, the chareidim would still need to engage in some introspection as to why their own lifestyle is not seen as the most desirable. But unfortunately, there are numerous problems within the chareidi camp itself that have recently come to the fore.
First, many children of chareidim have been going off the derech (OTD) in recent years, with entire magazine issues devoted to the problem.
Second, there are serious machloksin (fights) going on, not only between the chareidim and the Modern Orthodox or Religious Zionist communities, but among the chareidim themselves. In Israel, there are two major Litvish (non-chassidic) factions that do not speak to each other. This is known as the Peleg Halitai. It consists of the supporters of Rav Shteinman and Rav Kanievsky, on one hand, against the supporters of Rav Shmuel Auerbach, on the other. The main issue is whether yeshiva students should register for the draft but not serve, or not register at all. Students or rebbeim supporting the “wrong” side have been expelled from their yeshivas.
Separately, within the Ponovezh Yeshiva, there have been two warring groups for years, due to a succession argument, and they have engaged in physical fights so severe that police had to be called in to keep order. Shtenders and other objects were thrown at students and at rebbeim right in the middle of davening. An entire dormitory and library were ransacked. Students were injured so seriously that there was blood in the streets. (This episode was written about in the 5TJT a while back by Rabbi Aryeh Ginzberg, who rightly decried the horror of machlokes. However, he did not provide any analysis of the root cause, which is sorely needed.)
Among and within chassidic groups there have been numerous fights and splits, as well, even pitting family members against each other. And it’s not just in Israel; we have not been immune to such machlokes on this side of the Atlantic, either.
A third issue has been in the news recently. In Lakewood, there are many girls who have not been accepted in schools due to “serious” issues like the fact that their fathers work rather than learn full-time, or they owned a dog, or the father drove a red convertible, or, on occasion, just because another family called the principal and said they felt the family in question was not up to their standards.
In Israel, Sephardic girls have been rejected from certain seminaries, possibly on the basis of their ethnicity, and the government had to step in. In all cases, these girls sit home and cry while their friends happily go about buying school uniforms and supplies.
And fourth, we constantly see streams of people from the chareidi world who have been reduced to collecting door-to-door in the bitter cold or searing heat. If, G‑d forbid, they or a family member has a health problem or is orphaned, of course everybody feels terrible and tries to help as much as they can. But what about those who went through the chareidi yeshiva system and received no secular education? In Israel, not only is there no college, but there is no high school, either. At best, chareidim have an elementary-school secular education, and who knows what was actually taught. One can be sure that in addition to poverty, they experience depression and shalom bayis issues, due to lack of ability to buy food or other necessities.
I am never upset with those collecting, but I am often extremely upset with the rabbanim who signed their laminated letters. They begin with, “Rachmanim b’nei Rachmanim, please help Mr. So-and-so.” I do have rachmanus on these people, and will do everything within my power to help. But I ask: Why didn’t you, his own rebbe, have rachmanus on him 20 years ago, when you forbade him to get a secular education, and thereby destroyed this poor soul and his family? Now you provide him the great service of signing and laminating a letter? Where is your Jewish heart?
This is my instinctive reaction. But it does not prove that I am correct. Perhaps just as there are mitzvos that are unpleasant, such as marror on Pesach, this is one of them, and we must accept this way of life. It does not prove on an intellectual level that there is anything wrong with the chareidi approach. Similarly, the machloksin and other problems we mentioned above can perhaps be dismissed as personal issues that have nothing to do with chareidi philosophy. However, I don’t see it that way.
So we have to analyze and compare the underlying foundations of the Modern vs. the chareidi worldviews. I intend to propose a particular understanding of Judaism, and argue that misplaced emphasis can lead to all kinds of external problems, such as we have seen earlier, in addition to numerous self-contradictions. This is a huge project, and I am currently working on a book. I hope to give a flavor of this work in future articles.
In closing, I note that one reason why the chareidi approach seems to be thought of as dominant, while the Modern approach is usually defended apologetically at best, is that it is very easy to frighten people and threaten them with being a heretic (apikorus) if they disagree with the more extreme view. So I will state at the outset that I am not afraid, and one can be just as big a kannai (zealot) for matters pertaining to bein adam l’chaveiro, as the other side can be for bein adam l’Makom issues. In this way, hopefully we can strike a balance. v
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.